“Houston, we’ve had a problem…” Command module pilot Jack Swigert, Jr. uttered what might be one of the greatest understatements of the 20th century as oxygen leaked from the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft as it hurtled toward the moon at 25,000 miles per hour. A number of seemingly insignificant events should have warned NASA of the impending catastrophe, but no one put the pieces together in time. 

Mission Control instructed Swigert to flip a switch to stir liquid oxygen in Tank 2 in the service module. Immediately— BOOM! The rest, as they say, is history, as NASA scientists sweated round the clock using their slide rules to calculate and recalculate new equations to bring the crew home. It would have been the space program’s most public disaster, but it turned out to be one of America’s finest moments.

We are about to repeat history; only this time, we are not talking about a space mission to the moon. We are talking about the church in the United States and our mission to make disciples. We need to understand what might seem to be insignificant unrelated events, are warnings to us to make changes now, or future generations will face the dire consequences of our inaction. I wish I were speaking in hyperbole. I am not.

Details, details

It was easy for NASA to overlook several seemingly insignificant issues until they all added up to one catastrophic explosion. Before installing, someone dropped Apollo 13’s Oxygen Tank 2 only two inches onto the floor, but that was enough to damage an internal fill line. No one knew, and no one was concerned that the tank showed preflight testing anomalies likely due to the hidden damaged fill line. 

As part of this catastrophic chain of events, NASA upgraded the voltage components of the tank. Somehow they forgot to upgrade the internal thermostats, which operated at a lower voltage. So they heated and overloaded, preventing them from shutting down the tank as internal temperatures skyrocketed to 1,000 F. Normally, the oxygen temperatures would fluctuate between -300 to -100 F (note below zero). Had the astronauts known the internal tank temperature was at 1,000 F, I doubt they would have flicked the electrical switch to start the motor to stir the oxygen that created the spark that went— BOOM!

Why didn’t they know there was an explosive temperature increase? It turns out the temperature gauge only measured to up 80 F because its designers never believed something could go that wrong. Engineers had the foresight to measure temperature but lacked the vision to measure it accurately in the case of a chain of unseen actions leading to catastrophic events. Their metrics restricted and prevented them from seeing what they believed could never happen. 

The tank temperatures eroded the Teflon coating on the internal wires, so it only took the little spark produced by turning on a switch to detonate the bomb. BOOM! So many seemingly insignificant pieces of information made no sense until they all came together. We blind ourselves by our assumptions and can cripple ourselves by our metrics.

There were details and more details, but no understanding. If the church does not pay attention now, we just might repeat the history of not understanding the details in time. In the case of Apollo 13, hindsight is 20-20, but foresight was completely blind, deaf, and dumb. We dare not repeat the same in the church because we have now discovered alarming details that we had better understand quickly or the church in the United States will falter in its mission.

PROBLEM 1: We’re not reading the manual beyond its cover

Alarming data is only helpful if we understand its causes and effects. Did you notice the recent research reported by the American Bible Association and Barna Research? Their study shows that over the last year, and particularly during this coronavirus pandemic, 8.5% fewer Christians who said they read the Bible regularly and who rely on it to make life’s choices and relationships, have stopped reading it. Not only is that drop the largest in the ten-year history of the study, but we’re talking about thousands of people who already know God and trust His Word. Christians have stopped reading the Bible. It’s like having the repair manual but refusing to read it.

Don’t miss this next point. The 8.5% drop was not among Americans in general, nor among new believers. This drop measures those who most of us would consider are mature Christians—not just those who casually read the Bible, but those who claim to live by it. 

John Plake, ABS director of ministry intelligence, concludes, “This study supports the idea that the church plays a significant role in benefitting people’s wellbeing and Scripture engagement. To increase Scripture engagement, we must increase relational connections with one another through the church. The pandemic—and now this survey—have shown that when relational church engagement goes up, so does Scripture engagement, but when it goes down, Scripture engagement drops with it.

What is Plake saying? The study seems to support the reality that church as we know it, or church as we do it, is the prerequisite place where essential relationships exist for believers to engage Scripture. In other words, we engage Scripture when we are together (and many of those opportunities are in the church building or among its programs), but not necessarily when we are alone or in our shelter-in-place houses. Doesn’t that seem odd? If we believe engaging Scripture is essential to our lives, why would it matter so much if we could not gather or engage in church programs for a few months?

The data may indicate something much more significant than a temporary blip in our Bible reading habits. More significant issues may be staring at us behind the data. Those issues may be the cause of this sudden drop among those who typically do engage Scripture. Maybe the problem is more significant than restrictions on the church to gather during this pandemic. 

Wouldn’t you think that those who already know the importance of the Bible might read it more than ever in these perilous times, not stop reading it? 

Why do we need to go to church to engage Scripture? Where is the disconnect between engaging Scripture when gathered at a church building or sheltering in our homes? It may be that without central gatherings, we do not regard Scripture engagement to be that important because we have mistaken going to church for being the church.

We attend Bible studies, for example, and say we engaged Scripture there. Encounter God through His Word should result in passionate love for Jesus and Spirit-empowered obedience. But what if we participate in church Bible studies because they function primarily as an Evangelical sociological gathering mechanism and not primarily because we engage Scripture together? 

“Hi. Nice to meet you. Would you like to come to a Bible study with me?”

I’m not making that up. Ethnographer, James S. Bielo, studied the Evangelical Bible studies phenomenon and concluded that Bible studies serve as “dialogical social space” for Evangelicals.[1] That means believers can participate in Bible studies as social space without ever engaging Scripture. 

If we define “Scripture engagement” as nominal exposure to a portion of the text rather than an encounter with God that results in change, we will miss the problem caused if Bible studies primarily serve as social organizing mechanisms for Evangelicals. But, if we define “Scripture engagement” as an encounter with God through His Word that produces disciples, then we might better understand why 8.5% Bible readers suddenly stop when they can no longer gather. Maybe their unexpressed primary motive is to gather with others in “social dialogical space,” not to encounter God through his Word. 

Most would probably not even be aware of the different motives if they grew up in the Bible study culture. It all seems normal. Neither would the church readily see the distinction if it were not for this current pandemic that prevents the church from gathering.

These unique times serve to put the church through a stress test by limiting its social gathering. The examination reveals that at this time, when the church does not gather, there is a sudden and whopping 8.5% decrease in Scripture engagement among the very people who should be reading the Bible. Plake suspects a cause and effect relationship between not gathering and the drop in Scripture engagement. So do I, but something doesn’t seem right below the surface of this cause and effect relationship. 

The people who should be reading the Bible even more, are not reading it at all! Could we have dropped our biblical oxygen tank and created an internal problem the church cannot see? NASA engineers closed their eyes to the anomalies in their preflight testing of Oxygen Tank 2 because they did not believe there could be unseen internal damage to Oxygen Tank 2. We dare not make the same mistake by ignoring the sudden drop of 8.5% at a time when that number not only shouldn’t have drastically dropped but when we would have expected it to increase!

It all comes down to our definition of “Scripture engagement,” and then how we measure it. 

I am not saying it IS always the case that our gatherings are more about social space than encountering God through His Word, but I am saying it MIGHT be the case. We can simply dismiss the thought with a wave of self-assurance, but it might explain the inexplicable 8.5% sudden drop. If we disregard the possibility or refuse to search for adequate causes for this alarming data, then at the end of the chain of our ignorance, there will be an inevitable flick of the switch that starts the motor that stirs the oxygen that creates the spark that goes— BOOM!

PROBLEM 2: We measure with the wrong gauge

If this hypothesis is correct, there are even more significant concerns for the health of the church. Although previous research into Scripture engagement may be scientifically accurate, it is useless information to the church if we only measure nominal encounters with the text that do not produce transformation. The church does not need to know how many people encounter the text. It needs to know how many people encounter God through His Word, who these people are, and how this encounter with God through His Word transforms them as disciples.

Again, we stand in a unique time to measure cause and effect because the church cannot gather as it usually does. We can separate and analyze the priority of social gathering from the priority of engaging Scripture to encounter God. 

            The average temperature range for liquid oxygen in the Apollo 13 tanks should have been between -300 to -100 F (note these temperatures are below zero). So, a warning gauge with a maximum measurement of 80 F is well beyond the normal expected range. That is unless there is some sort of lurking internal problem that allows the tank to reach temperatures of 1,000 F (note that is above zero)! Had the astronauts seen the internal tank temperature rise so incredibly high, I doubt they would have flicked the electrical switch that starts the motor to stir the oxygen that creates the spark that went— BOOM! 

NASA engineers lacked the vision to anticipate catastrophic temperature rise. Their metrics restricted and prevented them from seeing what they believed could never happen. Similarly, our assumptions can prevent us from seeing, and we can cripple ourselves by choosing the wrong metrics. We assume people who tell us they regularly engage Scripture are doing so irrespective of whether or not they primarily engage it when they gather with others. And we assume that their primary reason to engage Scripture is to encounter God. We did not think that people might engage Scripture in groups because Bible studies are fundamental social gathering mechanisms for Evangelicals. We could never have known that until we measured at a time when the church could not gather. When we did, we discovered 8.5% of these same people stopped reading the Bible altogether.

If we make the wrong assumptions, or if we are unwilling to correct mid-course when presented with surprising data that shows something somewhere is wrong, then we will continue to make the same assumptions. We will continue to create metrics based on these assumptions and will continue to generate data we cannot use. We will also scratch our heads at the 8.5 % drop, and worse, we will consider it a temporary anomaly.

PROBLEM 3: We forget that the church is the people

NASA did not bring the crew of Apollo 13 home safely. A team of dedicated and gifted people working at NASA did. 

In 1970, the Apollo 13 spacecraft was equipped with an onboard computer that had the processing power equivalent to an Apple II or Commodore PET. We went to the moon with technology far inferior to that in the smartphone that guides me to the nearest gas station. The NASA engineers brought the astronauts home with slide rules and a team of very talented people continually checking and rechecking their calculations, doing the basic math, persevering under pressure, and having the faith that refused to give up.

In the end, it did not matter how many calculations the folks at NASA conducted. It did not matter how many hours the people worked, or how many scenarios they had to play out before they figured out the seemingly impossible problem of rebooting the command module for earth reentry. None of that mattered if the astronauts had died. Close was not good enough. What mattered is that three astronauts lived.

The church has all kinds of metrics to measure a congregation’s health. But maybe we measure the wrong things, and so remain unaware of coming catastrophe. We quantify attendance, levels of participation, financial resources, kingdom investments, and of course, new believers and members. These are usually appropriate measurements for organizational health, and to some extent, congregations need to be organized.

But, we must never make the critical assumption that the church is an organization, or we will put in place the wrong metrics of health. An “organization” is not people. Organisation is a structure that binds people and resources together for a purpose. But an organization cannot love, it cannot exercise faith, and it has no soul.

The church is people. The church a “spiritual organism.” People make disciples. People love. People have faith. People have souls. In the end, no matter how many measurements we make concerning the health of the church organization, what matters is that we make disciples of Jesus, so people do not die and go to hell.

An organization’s prime directive is to exist and survive. The task of the organization’s CEO is to make sure the organization survives no matter what the challenge. That must never be true of the church. In the apparent upside-down logic of heaven, the organism’s prime directive is not to survive, but to die. Only when we die, do we live. It’s as counter-intuitive as the last being first and the first being last. By dying in this world, we live eternally in the next. If we think the church is fundamentally an organization, then we will set in place metrics that quantify how many, how much, and the effectiveness of our resources.

If we regard the church as an organization, then it makes sense for the church to make members, even if the members are not necessarily disciples of Jesus. It is so much easier to count members than it is to determine if we are making disciples.

Measuring Scripture engagement is only helpful when it reveals how disciples in the church make disciples. We need to measure not just how many, but how well. Why? Because success in the church is transformed people who follow Jesus wholeheartedly.

Measuring how well we make disciples is notoriously more difficult than counting how many people attend or become involved in actions. Qualitative measurements are more slippery than quantitative ones. But we have been given a rare opportunity when the quantitative drop of 8.5% of people who would typically engage Scripture suddenly and dramatically stopped.

We need to understand why. Something went wrong that so many Bible engaged people disconnected from what they say about the Bible and how they act. We must remember that God made His people to connect to one another. If there were nothing wrong with how we make disciples, then when Christians do not gather together for months, their Scripture engagement would not decrease. What I suggest is the possibility that many do not place the same priority on encountering God through His Word as they do in gathering together with other believers. They are different priorities, but ones that, for some, mean abandoning the secondary priority of reading the Word. 

People are hard to measure. Their actions are not, but their hearts are. Measuring how much Scripture engagement is not the same as measuring the impact of that engagement. We need to measure disciple-making with different or additional metrics. If the church makes members instead of disciples, we will tend to measure attendance and involvement. We’ll want to know how many people engage the text, but we will not ask whether or not they encounter God in the text. And we will probably be surprised at the 8.5% drop. Evangelicals are good at creating relational space. But we better be good at making disciples. If we were good at that, I doubt we would have seen such an unexpected drop in Scripture engagement during this coronavirus time.

Maybe we can better understand the causes of PROBLEM 1, where 8.5% of regular Bible readers suddenly stop reading Scripture if we better analyze PROBLEMS 2 and 3 that concern what we measure and how we must view the church as an organism, not an organization. We have had a problem. Apollo 13 came safely home when the team of people at NASA identified the problems correctly, worked together to solve those problems, and believed that failure was no option. Lives were at stake. They still are. We have little time to wake up.

Authored by Dr. David Ingrassia, Pastor at Charlotte Awake

[1] Bielo, James S. Words Upon the Word : An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible StudyQualitative Studies in Religion. New York: New York University Press, 2009.